Progressive Mehrheit Debattenbeitrag

Berlin success inspires quiet confidence

After yesterday’s state elections in Berlin, social democratic incumbent mayor Klaus Wowereit is celebrating a dull victory. Despite a positive national trend and high personality ratings for Wowereit, his party lost 2.5 percentage points, obtaining 28.3% of the vote. The hopes among the party’s left wing that the results could raise Wowereit’s chances of becoming the SPD’s candidate for chancellor in 2013 have not been fulfilled.

Besides the implications for Wowereit, three things are remarkable about the elections in Germany’s largest city. First, the high-altitude flight of the Greens has come to an end for the time being, although the party remains strong and stable. It received 17.6% of the votes − a gain of 4.5 percentage points. Six months ago, it looked as if the Greens could overtake the SPD in Berlin, thus challenging the SPD’s leadership role on the centre-left in Germany. Evidently, a large part of this rise can be explained by the nuclear disaster in Fukushima and the debate that followed about extending the life spans of nuclear power plants.

Second, the new “pirate party” reached a spectacular 8.9% of the vote. The party focuses on internet politics, privacy protection and direct democracy, but four out of five voters said they voted for the party due to dissatisfaction with all other parties. The newcomer is a real threat for the SPD, the Greens and the Left Party: election researchers suggest that the pirates received one quarter of their votes from each of these three parties. In the future, a “Ralph Nader effect” may seriously weaken the chances for coalitions on the left. Moreover, the pirate party’s success underscores the fact that the SPD has not managed to engage with the rising new creative class of the “digital bohème” and keeps on losing support among young voters. While most of the pirate voters were young (and male), the only age group among which the SPD gained votes was the over sixties. Among 18 to 24-year-olds, the Social Democrats lost 12 percentage points.

Third, the attempt of the struggling liberal party, the FDP, to please voters through anti-European resentment has failed in Berlin. After the FDP’s party chairman and federal minister for economic affairs speculated about an “orderly insolvency” for Greece, the Berlin liberals placarded with the slogan “No Euro-bill for Berlin” − in reference to the city’s own financial problems. Only 1.8% of the voters appreciated this strategy and the FDP lost 5.8 percentage points, with the party now no longer represented in the Berlin parliament. For Chancellor Angela Merkel, the weakness of her coalition partner remains a serious problem, especially if the liberals precede with the anti-European course at a time when major decisions at the EU level are at stake. With strong forces inside the FDP trying to avoid further financial assistance for “indigent” Euro countries, it is not unrealistic to think of the conservative-liberal coalition shattering before the end of the legislature.

Would the SPD be prepared for early elections? At first glance, it seems they would be. In the seven state elections this year, the Social Democrats performed much better than expected: the SPD will be part of all governments, holding the position of state governor in five out of the seven state parliaments. Slowly, the party is gaining confidence, starting to believe that it will profit from the crisis besetting the governing coalition. The party even has strong enough nerves to answer the sensitive question of who will become candidate for chancellor, with three leading politicians in the running − the “troika” of Sigmar Gabriel, Peer Steinbrück and Frank-Walter Steinmeier. In addition, the new zeitgeist favours social democratic ideas, and the party feels it. For instance, its proposals to increase taxes for the rich have not met much resistance among commentators.

However, a closer look reveals that the SPD is still in a period of self-discovery in terms of its policies. A recently presented financial concept is the only substantial contribution to this process so far. The paper encompasses a clear commitment to reduce the debt faster than projected by the current government, with the only policy field where large additional expenses are planned being education. Thus the concept sets out a clear political framework and will have restrictive consequences for all other policy fields in which social democrats might come up with new, potentially costly political ideas. This is a fact that a lot of functionaries and politicians have not yet realised; future conflict is likely.

The lack of coherent policies is also evident in the social democratic position towards the European Union. While SPD politicians in the European Affairs Committee of the Bundestag and the European Parliament push for European solidarity and further steps towards integration, their colleagues take the blame in their constituencies for helping Greece. Only 21% of SPD supporters favour expanding the financial rescue package. This gulf between the political elite and voters poses a serious dilemma that needs to be discussed. But in order to avert negative press coverage, party leaders are keeping the debate on the future of the EU under wraps.

As the deep crisis of the governing coalition shows, this method could take its toll: when coming to power, you better be prepared.


This essay is a contribution to The State of the Left, a monthly insight report from Policy Network’s Social Democracy Observatory and was originally published here.